What Is An Ampless Guitar Rig?

Guitar amps are a wonderful things. But let’s be honest; sometimes they’re a bit of a pain. Heavy, cumbersome things that need lugging back and forth, the occasional valve replacement and constant tweaking to nail your sound. So what if we told you that you didn’t necessarily need one? Enter the ampless rig.

More and more guitarists are turning to modern, streamlined rig solutions for home, stage and studio. So what is an ampless rig and why should you consider giving it a go?

Sam Beattie

Sam Beattie

Broadly-speaking, guitarists often fit into 1 of 2 groups: traditionalist or progressive. The former might favour the cranked valve amp, the indulgent pedalboard, the analog delay.

By contrast, the latter might be more open to the idea of alternative tonewoods, amp modelling, cab simulation and so on. That’s where the ampless rig comes in – the idea of having a full guitar setup for home, stage or studio, but without an amp. Here are the popular options:

  • Ampless pedalboards (preamps, power amps, cab sims)
  • Multi-FX floor units
  • Rack mount guitar rigs

Featured Ampless Rig Gear

How Do You Build an Ampless Guitar Rig?

A guitar rig most often features 3 key components: guitar, pedals, amp. Remove the amp from the equation, and you need to get a bit creative to ensure your rig can deliver the goods. With more and more guitarists turning to streamlined rig solutions, manufacturers are fighting to keep up. Now there’s plenty on the market to answer demand.

Preamp Pedals

A guitar amp traditionally has 2 main components: preamp and power amp. The power amp sends power to your loudspeaker, while the preamp lets you shape your sound with gain and EQ controls.

A preamp pedal is this tone-shaping component in pedal form. As with guitar amps, preamp pedals come in either a solid-state or valve form. Your choice depends on what you’re after; valve preamps offer a dynamic, responsive tone with natural overdrive, while solid-state preamps are consistent, reliable and occasionally more affordable.

Preamp pedals come in all shapes and sizes, from Mooer’s mini preamp range to Victory’s V4 valve-powered units. A guitar preamp pedal should always go early in your chain, often first. By putting the preamp early, you get the same effect as having an FX loop; preamp > FX > power amp/cab sim.

Recommended Preamp Pedals

Power Amp Pedals

As mentioned above, a guitar power amp is what sends power to a passive speaker, allowing it to make a racket. These also come in pedal form, often more affordable and compact than their amp counterparts.

It’s worth noting that power amps are used in conjunction with passive speakers, not as a direct output. This means that you technically need a cab or speaker to use one, so it isn’t technically ampless. But what it will allow you to do is use any cab without needing a head or combo of your own. So you can still rock up to gigs or sessions without carrying an amp!

Power amps come in pedal, rack and standalone head form – again they don’t all fit into the ‘ampless’ category, but there’s plenty of choice. A power amp pedal should always go last in your effects chain.

Recommended Power Amp Pedals

Cab Sim Pedals

While power amp pedals are designed to be used with a speaker cabinet, cab sim pedals emulate the cab sound – with no additional gear necessary. Plug your preamp pedal, distortion pedal or effects chain straight into a cab sim pedal, and it’ll come out the other side sounding like a full-blown guitar rig.

This means that you can use a cab sim pedal as a direct output – straight to your interface or front of house PA system, unlike power amps. A cab sim pedal is a great solution for realistic guitar cab sounds without the associated back pain – pretty good deal if you ask us.

Depending on what you’re after, there’s plenty of cab sim options on the market. Compact and simple, larger and more comprehensive – from Two Notes to Strymon. Again, a cab sim pedal ought to go last in your effects chain.

Recommended Cab Sim Pedals

Multi-FX

The multi-FX unit is nothing new – they’ve been around (and very popular) for decades. Offering a broad range of sounds in one concise unit, it’s an undeniably attractive prospect.

The reason we’re including multi-FX units in this article is because many popular offerings now feature built-in amp sounds. This means you can craft an entire rig in one handy unit, or have it at the end of your chain acting as your cab sim. Brands like Line 6 and Headrush have blurred the lines between modelling amp and multi-FX in recent years – to the delight of the guitar world!

Honourable Mention: Rack mount Gear

We thought it’d be worth mentioning rack mount guitar gear; while it’s a cool alternative to a traditional amp, some might argue that it’s not that dissimilar in terms of practicality. But it undeniably has its own merits.

You’ll see lot of pro guitarists and gigging musicians using rack mounted equipment because it’s uniform and easy to transport everything in one go. Preamp, power amp, cab sim, FX – you name it – there’s a chance it’ll fit neatly into a single rack mount case.

Preamp vs Power Amp vs Cab Sim

A preamp is an essential component of any ampless rig. It’s what largely shapes the core of your tone. If you intend to use your rig with a guitar cabinet or passive loudspeaker, a power amp is a necessity.

If, however, you want to go fully ampless (i.e. no cabinet) then a cab sim is crucial. Without it, your tone may sound raw and unnatural – the sound of a cab plays a major role in your overall sound.

Many manufacturers combine variations of these three components. Strymon’s Iridium (below) combines 3 modelled preamp sounds with 9 guitar cabinet impulse responses, while Orange’s Terror Stamp packs a valve preamp and solid-state power amp into a pedal-sized enclosure. There’s plenty on the market and we expect there’s more on the way…

Strymon Iridium - Ampless Guitar Rigs - Andertons Music Co.

Ampless Pedalboards vs Multi-FX Units vs Rack mount Gear

So we’ve dissected the options for your ampless rig – which one will suit you best?

The idea of the ampless pedalboard is the one that’s gaining the most traction. Multi-FX units and rack mounted rigs have been around for decades, and remain popular. But the ampless board is the flavour of the month (at the time of writing, at least)!

The ampless pedalboard offers you full control, right in front of you at your feet. This is an attractive prospect for guitarists who like to tweak in real-time, whether live or in the studio. The same could be said for multi-FX; it may require a bit more menu-diving, but the plus side is you’ll probably have plenty more options to choose from.

The rack mount gear option is the outlier, but attractive for gigging guitarists. Easy connectivity, consistent sound and no corner-cutting. These are fully-fledged guitar rigs in the traditional sense, but without the associated hassle.

Can You Gig With an Ampless Guitar Rig?

Yes.

Tempting to leave it there, but it’s worth noting that you can gig, record and practice with an ampless rig too – that’s the beauty of it.

Wind the clocks back a few decades. Imagine telling a pro guitarist that they could have everything they need to play a stadium show with multiple sounds at their disposal – without an amp. They’d have laughed in your face – but now that’s not just a reality, it’s the preferred choice of more and more guitarists. Could it work for you?

Summary

The pros of an ampless rig

  • No more lugging amps around
  • Better real-time control over your sound
  • More tonal flexibility – you can easily swap out components
  • FX loop-like functionality
  • No more unreliable cabinet micing on stage

The cons of an ampless rig

  • No super-cool amp to stand in front of
  • No cab noise on stage – you’ll rely solely on monitors
  • You might need to learn to tap-dance (is that a bad thing?)

There you have it – that’s our take on the ampless revolution. What do you think? Share with your guitar pals and discuss – we’d love to hear your feedback (not that kind of feedback, thank you)!

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Sam Beattie
Sam Beattie
Sam is one of our content writers, as well as being our resident southpaw and synth enthusiast. He spends his free time composing for music libraries and playing in a post-rock band. Sam's desert island gear would be his Mexican Tele, Strymon El Capistan and Teenage Engineering OP-1.

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